Pandora’s Tower -> Damsel in Distress

Aeron, a blond male, holding a purple toned chunk of beast flesh.

Aeron, a blond male, holding a purple toned chunk of beast flesh.

Pandora’s Tower was one of the three games from the Operation Rainfall community led effort to breed awareness for Pandora’s Tower, Xenoblade Chronicles, and The Last Story in the United States.  These three Wii games were announced for Japan and Europe but had not been announced for US release in 2012, which led to the Operation Rainfall effort. With the latter two now out in the US, the first has been confirmed and will be coming out late March. The previous two games both had ensemble casts of characters, with this last game staring one young man named Aeron. It is a personal story centered around him and a young woman named Elena. Rather than attempting to save his home town, his country, or the world, Aeron’s goal is to save the woman that he loves. The beginning of the game sets Elena up as a stereotypical damsel in distress: she is a pretty woman, put into a horrible situation because of a curse, who now requires a male hero to save her.

The following contains story spoilers from Pandora’s Tower from watching the first ~20 minutes of game play of the title from a Let’s Play YouTube video:

At the start of the game we see that Elena is cursed. Her arm, shoulder, part of her face, and her legs no longer look fully human. They are purple in color, pitted, and tendrils are seen protruding from her shoulder. She is becoming a beast. A traveling woman named Mavda says she knows a solution and tells Aeron to enter one of Pandora’s Towers to obtain flesh from the beasts found there.

When told that the beast flesh is necessary for a ceremony, Elena says, “Mavda, I want to go too” and Aeron shakes his head no saying, “I’ll be back.”

Upon his return, Mavda hands the flesh to Elena and tells her to consume it. Elena looks at this in horror.

Mavda: “Ah, I see what the problem is. Folks in this country are believers in Aios. You’re forbidden to eat meat, aren’t you? Now this little morsel… is beast flesh. Freshly cut from servant beasts.”

Elena becomes physically sick at this revelation.

Mavda: “Come now, girl. Eat it down!”

Elena: “I’ve never eaten meat!”

Mavda: “Well, if you don’t eat it… your fate will be sealed. You’ll grow more and more monstrous. And there’ll be no happy ending for you and young Aeron.”

At this news, Elena begins to sob and slowly, deliberately consumes the beast flesh. In what appears to be a painful process, the cursed flesh melts off her body and when she returns to normal Elena collapses.

We then learn that this is not a permanent solution. Eating the beast flesh only serves to stave off the curse. She must continue to consume more flesh.

Elena: “You mean…? The meat… I can’t stomach any more.”

Mavda: “Well, I’m afraid you’re going to have to. Otherwise things are only going to get worse. Heh heh! To think the maiden at the Harvest Festival would end up forced to eat meat!”

Elena protests: “So this is to be my life? To be cooped up in here, eating foul flesh? Must I learn to live like this? Can I not lift the curse?”

In order to lift it, strong monsters in each of the towers (known as masters) must be defeated and their flesh eaten by Elena.

Elena protests again: “No! I won’t hear of it! How can I ask Aeron to face such dangers for my sake?”

Yet, she is given little choice in the matter and Aeron goes off to defeat more monsters.

Let’s summarize:

  • Elena is cursed and she is being “saved” by the main character of Aeron.
  • Elena originally asks Mavda if she can go do the task as well (to take some agency in saving herself) and she is told no by Aeron. He is the hero, not her.
  • In order to save herself from becoming a monster/beast, she must do something that is not only repulsive to her but goes against her religion.
  • She finds out that this act was not a one time deal, but will be continuous.
  • Elena AGAIN protests at someone else being the person in charge of fixing her situation and she is told that it must be him.  Elena asks: “Can I not lift this curse?” “How can I ask Aeron to face such dangers for my sake?”
  • The main female character in this game is literally stranded in a building as the male character wanders off to different towers fighting monsters in an effort to bring back items that can save her.

I do not know where the story heads from here. Does Elena ever get any agency in this situation? Does the player (as her) ever get the choice to refuse eating the meat? Or does the player (as Aeron) continually go to the towers, get more beast flesh, and just hand it over to Elena who is forced to consume this flesh?

The beginning of Pandora’s Tower sets up a stereotypical damsel in distress storyline. There are other story telling options. Let Elena fight monsters to save herself. Or perhaps, let Aeron have the curse and fight monsters to save himself. It could have remained a personal story of salvation but not dove into the damsel in distress narrative. Perhaps this story breaks from the stereotype as it continues, but the start of the narrative is not promising.

The gameplay looks fun, but the story (based on the intro) appears to be pure cliche. Let’s rewrite this story. How could this have been written to give her more agency? Are there any turns and twists in the story that would redeem this cliched beginning?

 

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26 Responses to Pandora’s Tower -> Damsel in Distress

  1. Matt says:

    According to wiki is convoluted gibberish that still remains as problematic as how it started.

    How could this have been written to give her more agency?

    Take Aeron out completely. Elena’s off on her own. Add neat negative-feedback mechanic where if she can’t eat monster for too long she starts gaining monster powers that boost her combat abilities. The rest of the backstory reveal is discarded completely in favour of letting the player read into the increasingly creepy metamorphoses whatever they may want.

    I would imagine the tone of the result to end up being somewhere between Crawl, IVAN and Brutal Doom.

    • Ashera says:

      Ooh, that reminds me of an old PC RPG called Entomorph, where, in order to stop a plague that transforms people into monstrous insects, you need to yourself turn into a monstrous insect.

    • Negative Kat says:

      I would buy THAT game so fast it’d make my wallet’s non-existent head spin. Kind of makes me think of Claymore, in a good way.

    • Matt says:

      Alternatively: Same plot as before, but you only play as Elena.
      The entire thing is an elaborate cooking game.

      (Or further: A whole village is infected and they make Elena do this because she is actually a cooking prodigy and the only person who can make this stuff remotely palatable. Every time your cooking makes someone vomit, they turn more bestial until Aeron finishes whatever he’s doing which you have no control over except to direct strategic logistical aid based on his (incomplete, subjective) debriefs.)

  2. Petra says:

    I won’t contest that the story is problematic and that the damsel in distress is far too common a cliche and alternatives can be found.

    That said, are we obligated to dislike that story device where we see it? Must we call it out and demand that companies do better next time?

    I haven’t played Pandora’s Tower and am in no position to judge whether or not it breaks with cliche (commenters above suggest not) or if this problem eventually ends up a “deal breaker” for sensitive/conscientous players.

    But take this scenario: What if the story eventually revealed that it is beyond the damsel in question’s ability to gather the flesh herself? What if, say, facing the boss monsters while suffering from the affliction was certain death?

    Or, to pick a scenario that actually exists, is Shadow of the Colossus problematic because:

    –spoiler warning—

    The male lead is working alone to find a cure for whatever malady is affecting his female loved one (IIRC the malady is being dead).

    –spoiler end–

    Is the above scenario problematic and should we demand better than that? Or does the Damsel In Distress cliche deserve no place in storytelling at all? Would it be permissible if the roles were reversed?

    Damsel in Distress is most certainly too common, but is it a pox to be eradicated?

    • Gunthera1 says:

      If the trope were just one potential storyline used in games, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But it is used constantly. Mario Brothers can’t get away from saving the Princess. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/DamselInDistress/VideoGames lists just some examples.

      At the very least, it is overused. But at its worst, it adds to the societal construct that women NEED saving; that they cannot be in full control of their own lives. In this case, Elena even says that she wants to go and fight the monsters but that option is not given to her. Instead, the male main character goes into the towers. This is why I find this specific example particularly upsetting.

      • marco says:

        I think the sad part is, even Peach gets to be proactive quite often in Mario games, whereas with these titles, there is only the one entry and the female lead (or any female leads) are just there to exist for the male to some extent (whether to be saved and/or loved, etc).

        Even one of the series most known for damsel in distress breaks its own mold at times, but very few (solo/individual) titles don’t even bother to put the effort in. (To me, it’s also problematic that the female leads sit back and do stereotypical feminine things rather than having any other kind of agency in her role while in the tower; if that makes any sense.)

  3. Doug S. says:

    Change the relationship and status of the two characters. Make Aeron into Elena’s mother, and make Elena a twelve-year-old boy.

  4. Rakaziel says:

    Theoretically, the background setting of the game would have had much potential.
    We could even keep Aeron in the game, but with Elena and Mavda part of the hunting party from the start.

    Aeron:

    He could be the classic melee fighter and, depending on his equipment, could work as the damage dealer (giant swords), tank (plate armor) or melee controller (using shields that end in claws as weapons, allowing him to grapple and throw enemies), the equipment of each profession can be combined to create a mixed fighter, the only limit is his strength vs the total weight of the equipment. He can eat monster meat to permanently boost his stats, but mutates in the process.

    This could even lead to interesting self-exploration on his part: Is it the body or the spirit that makes one human, and how much of his physical humanity (by eating monster meat) and his spiritual humanity (some of the monsters are sapient, and he loses humanity when he kills them, even more so when he eats their flesh) he is willing to sacrifice for his goal. And even, after some time, what his ultimate goal is – is he really just becoming stonger to better hunt for his loved one, to protect her, or is he by now just doing this to elvevate himself.

    There could even be an addiction mechanism, with withdrawal symptoms when he does not regularly eat monster meat. He can weather the withdrawal, but it takes time, and each time he eats monster meat or even just uses monster meat based potions it resets the timer.

    Mavda:

    She could be an alchemist and healer, using monster meat to create everything from healing potions to boost potions to bombs. What she can create depends on the combination of ingredients, and the further the game progresses, the more recipes and ingredients can be found. Finding the recipes out by experimentation wastes mosnter meat but gives her bonus xp, which in turn makes her a better cook. In combat she would throw the afromentioned bombs and revive downed party members (who have a time limit – if she does not heal them in time, they die).

    There would again be moral conflict on her part, both when she tries to force Elena to eat monster meat and when her party members become so mutated that she can cut off pieces of their flesh to use as ingredients (or, if we want to keep it PG13, use their blood). She can even mutate herself with monster meat for the same purpose. As her healing potions repair the damage, this is actually sustainable, but it may cost her spiritual humanity, especially when she does it against the other party members’ will.

    Her attitude towards the other party members, especially Elena, and her self-image -and therefore spiritual humanity- going the full range from dedicated healer to mercyless experimentator, would be decided by the player via Mavda’s dialogue options.

    Elena:

    While the other two are party members, she would be the main focus of the story, and it may even be told from her perspective and memory as she retells it to the player (the sequences where Aeron may occasionally strike out on his own would be her imagination of his fights, which would also a good ingame way to explain his exaggerated attacks and weapons by his own exaggeration).

    Her curse gradually turns her into a monster, and the player decides via her dialogue options how much of a personal problem she even has with that. If her loved one also mutates she begins to care less about outer appearances. However, the mutation also affects her brain and if she does not focus on her self control, there is a great risk that her new predatory instincts either drive her to despair (one bad ending could be suicide) or to give in to her new nature and become a monster in body and spirit. Again the meat addiction mechanism would be at work, made worse by the fact that she needs to eat monster meat to stave off the curse.

    Eating the meat of other monsters alters her curse, changing the monster into which she eventually mutates, and eating the meat of the same monster repeatedly actually speeds up the mutation – what staves of the curse is that the retroviruses in the different monsters’ DNA fight each other and return her to default in the process, then the strongest virus again begins to mutate her, the curse by itself is just a weakened mutation resistance. Meat mix recipes could even create hybrid DNA, allowing to further customize her stats and abilities if she is willing to give up physical humanity.

    The inital monster she was cursed to be could be one of the weakest critters you encounter – or one of the strongest monsters you encounter at the very end. She starts with the highest spiritual humanity and can sink to the lowest level of monstosity, her curse allowing her to completely abondon her old self.

    In a dark twist the only way for her to become fully human again could be to eat human flesh (again, blood would suffice in a PG13 build, but this game is a setting that actually would work well with blood and gore and body horror), and even that would only work if by then she has not given in to the monster within – in the latter case she will simply devour the rest of the party, unless they are equally mutated and loyal to her, in the ending cutscene.

    She goes through the same moral questions as Aeron, only with twice as much panic as the process started against her will and continues on its own.

    Another dark twist could be that too much monster exposure alters her genes and leads to mutated children in the epilogue. The risk is even higher if Aeron (or Mavda, if she chooses to date her, and Mavda uses a spell to merge two egg cells to create the child) is also mutated by this point, especially if they share the same mutations.

    There could even be an easter egg rts or turn based strategy game (maybe only unlocked by reaching the “Mutated Children” ending) in which you pit monsters and mutants against each other and breed them like pokemon.

    That are my thoughts so far. What are your opinions?

    • Matt says:

      I like how you’ve got not only different development trees for each of them, but different gameplay paradigms through which each character develops!

      Probably the best replay/discuss with friends about how different each of your Shepards Elenae turned out value of the suggestions so far.

  5. Rakaziel says:

    Elena’s role in the hunting party would be the most versatile, as she gains the abilities of the monsters she mutates into. She could be a tank, damage dealer, wrestler (grab & throw), ranged fighter (the monsters probably have all manners of breath attacks and maybe even magic/psi powers), beastmaster (one potion can cause her to emit pheromones, distracting monsters and even allowing her to tame them if her DNA matches them enough, stronger pheromones compensate DNA mismatch) or any combination of the above, and with sufficient strength could also use Aeron’s weapons.

    Except if she wants to stay human. It would be required for the better endings and would make them harder to reach. She could have some paladin style powers and ki attacks to make up for it and later also to stave off the mutation by sheer force of will if she keeps her spiritual humanity high enough. She would also be the character who can restore the spiritual humanity of Aeron and Mavda by keeping them in line and by keeping their spirits up – which in turn restores her own.
    Add some messiah prophecy and you even have an explanation why exactly she was cursed.

    • tossca says:

      I love this idea. Why can’t I play a badass female character that eats monster flesh and morphs into them? That would be so cool!

      • Rakaziel says:

        I can already see the game in front of me: “WEREOINE”
        (pulled together from were-animal and heroine and written in letters like claw strikes) the cover picture could be either her fighting monsters, a sword in one hand and the other hand morphed into a claw – or the classical split portrait, one side human and the other side and a monster. There could even be several collectible covers, each version of the game you buy adding more areas and monsters to the shared world of the games, kind of like a mix between Pokemon and WoW.

        While the heroine could shapeshift (your use of the word ‘morph’ reminded me of Animorphs and gave me the idea), the combination of her willpower, amount of absorbed monster DNA and her spiritual humanity would determine how well she can shift back to human form. If the balance breaks the changes are subtle at first – ears, tail, different hair color – but later end in full lycantropy.

        The background story could either be a curse like in Pandora’s Tower or something more akin to the wereanimal clans in Werewolf: The Apocalypse, archetypical deities included.

        Or settle it in a biopunk universe where you can take plasmids to shapeshift and you evolve and genetically modify your different forms like pokemon – only that you are trainer and mon in the same person, depending on whether you are in battle mode or not. Defeating other monsters and shifters gives you a chance to add some of their genetic arsenal to your own, and you can also add to your collection by either diplomacy or seduction (with the whole arsenal of a morphable body and only needing genetic samples for impersonation) or by buying gene samples of questionabe origin – and considerable risk – on the grey and black market. Here you can also sell gene samples of your own monster form builds and pets, which in turn increases the risk of your most successful builds being used against you.

        Deliberately morphing into an extra cute (but still as deadly) or extra frightening version of her monster form would be two separate skills on their own, and would also allow her subtle changes that either give her a bonus to charm or to intimidate when in human form, with a higher bonus when she is in a mixed form. You can be a cute fluffy bunny that eats dragons for breakfast and sends the entire town running.

        It would also be possible to play a wolf in sheep’s clothing, outwardly human but saturated with monster DNA and devoid of spiritual humanity, but it would require a very high amount of willpower, in turn leaving less for the other stats. As you can also use willpower to boost your stats, but only by a percentage of the stat, the result would usually be a fragile assassin or a comparably weak alrounder. Or an infiltrator style beastmaster, even with the archievement “Crazy Cat Lady” when you specialize on fielding an army of strays.

        If your spiritual humanity is high enough, you can even combine shapeshifting and paladin powers, though this comes at the price of no longer having full access to frenzy attacks – you still build up battle frenzy to spend on these attacks, but at a very slow pace. Which is good, as it allows you to spend your willpower to boost your paladin attacks, instead of hoarding it to prevent your accumulated battle frenzy from spilling over – if your spiritual humanity is low enough it also builds up when you so much as see something tasty, and even talking with people only increases your appetite to eat them – unless you spend willpower in meditation to reign yourself in, and even more time in meditation to restore the willpower.

  6. marco says:

    I was initially interested in Pandora’s Tower, and the gameplay looks awesome and some of the music is pretty great too), but it has a problematic story alongside having dating sim elements that are specifically/only geared toward the male demographic. Out of three OpRainfall titles, this is the least interesting to me in the end. (Even Xenoblade does something relatively clever with its distressed damsel from the beginning.)

  7. Justin says:

    I’ve got a counter-challenge which I am honestly curious about. I agree that the distressed damsel is tiresome and overused, however, there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of one person taking on another’s challenges, particularly if said person is more well-suited to the task themselves (I was under the impression that the main character was a professional soldier of some sort and and that Elena had some religious or political position.) So. Lets say your starting from that, and you don’t get to change it- Elena is not trained in combat, Aeron is, and Aeron is the main character, Elena is still cursed. How do you change it to still give Elena more agency, and be less constrained? Given that the quest is a long-term affair, I would perhaps suggest having Aaron give Elena combat training- and have her become playable at maybe the 1/3 mark through the game. Perhaps give her some other skills to offset her rudimentary combat knowledge – or let her weaponize the curses taint, creating a neat gameplay mechanic where you can power up by holding off on eating more of the demon flesh, but at some cost. Then switch her to the protagonist, and have Aeron be backup, or at least let them share and go in shifts. Additionally, make that everyone’s attitude for the get go- Circumstances may have placed her in a situation she’s not currently equipped to handle alone, but she refused to have it stay that way- she lets Aeron go off alone at first, but only until she has enough of a handle on things to take care of herself.

    Alternatively, if you really didn’t want to make her into a fighter, a simple change in attitude might suffice- she is the queen or princess or high priestess or whatever, and rather than simper and follow Aeron’s lead, make it the other way around- He goes because she commands him, because it is his duty and she is his commander, dammit.

    Those are just a few ideas- anyone got anymore?

    • Matt says:

      I like how as the comments pile up people’s suggestions work with fewer and fewer broad, sweeping changes to the game.

      a simple change in attitude might suffice- she is the queen or princess or high priestess or whatever, and rather than simper and follow Aeron’s lead, make it the other way around- He goes because she commands him, because it is his duty and she is his commander, dammit.

      This!

      Which also reminds me of one possible addition to that: she originally was quite willing to let herself mutate and have to be put down rather than breach her religious tenets, but her underlings convinced her a) this sort of non-strategy of dealing with the problem would lead to chaos utter freaking chaos and b) this treatment wasn’t all that reliable and they needed people to test it on before they could help the general population.

      (Dunno how much of either is already implied in the original though.)

      • Rakaziel says:

        Both of your ideas are really good!

        It would actually be very interesting experience to play Elena from the queen perspective, though it would turn the game into more of a state simulation. You would have three parameters – pragmatism, idealism and consequence, and would know that whether you live or die, you will be remembered for your deeds as a queen. And indeed will have a retelling of your deeds, warped by how the perception of each was influenced by your general attitude and the people’s resulting expectation of your motives, as the epilogue.
        By playing Elena, you could choose what type of queen she is, which in turn influences both Aeron’s attitude, and his abilities, as you decide his training.

        Let him start not as a lowly grunt, but as the Champion of the Guard, First of Her Fighters, albeit too inexperienced to be promoted to commander of the guard yet. He is at the same time among the best of the best and expendable enough that his death would not destabilize the guard.
        And he has a mind of his own, albeit you can change his opinion by debate, threats or manipulation – each of which can backfire if you play your cards wrong.

        It would actually be possible to insist on rather falling to the curse and be executed than eating meat, and would even get a comparably high score in idealism and consequence, albeit a bad one in pragmatism, and a rather bad epilogue unless you made the right political decisions to keep your kingdom stable in the aftermath.

        Alternately you could also decide who the antidote is to be tested on – do you really risk your royal self or do you experiment on those sworn to your service? Or on the poor? And how far do you go in your experiments once side effects start to occur? Do you try to help the doubly affected or do you try to weaponize them to fight monsters with monsters?

        Of course, you can also order your guard to give you combat training, and go on the monster hunt by yourself, and are free to decide if you keep Aeron as your personal bodyguard or not.

        Mavda would be your court mage in this scenario.

  8. Joe R says:

    You could keep the whole starting premise totally intact. Girl’s cursed, guy sets out to help her, cure for curse is repulsive but she does it anyway out of a sense of obligation or just self-preservation.

    The way to save this would be to throw in some kind of twist. Okay, so she’s stuck holed up because of her affliction, but maybe have HER be the one who discovers the cure, through research or old folklore or some such, and is like, “This sounds horrible!” and the guy’s like, “Off I go!” anyway, despite her protests.

    You can establish a dynamic there where her lack of agency is actually a point of contention, and as the guy’s quest progresses, the girl’s attitude shifts. The nature of the conflict could change — maybe it’s the hero with the real problem in that he’s putting himself in needless danger to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, and their disagreement escalates to becoming the real conflict of the story.

    It might not end well for either of them (a logical conclusion to this is that she goes fully monstrous and the hero has to fight her), but it certainly makes her a great deal less passive.

  9. Joe R says:

    Oh! I should mention. There’s another game which has a very similar premise to this one: Nier, an action-RPG from Square-Enix. The story centers around the father of a girl with a serious affliction, and he’s set out to find a cure for it.

    The problem isn’t the daughter’s lack of agency (she is a child, maybe seven or eight years old) but the father himself. It becomes abundantly clear as the story progresses that not only does he not spend enough time with a loved one for whom there is very little chance of ultimately saving, one who only wishes for his company in the short time she has, but the lengths to which he goes in search of this cure becoming more and more extreme and ultimately destructive.

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